At school, the principal called ‘You! Come here at once!’ The You in question understood, without being told, that trouble lay ahead. If the principal had, instead used a different tone, as in “You come hereat once,” the individual being called would have been unsure of the immediate future. The tone is used to express a feeling about someone or something and causes some form of reaction in the listener. The effect of tone is more clearly seen when communicating with children. A mother communicates softly with the child and elicits a smile while a harsh tone is immediately greeted with tears.


You will need to carefully choose the tone you use for making your communication effective. When trying to convey that you understand a subject, you wouldn’t mumble, right? Not unless you were unsure as to whether you had understood or not. If you were unsure of yourself, it would be unwise to pretend otherwise with the use of a loud tone that draws attention to you.


While tonality brings with it an undulating voice quality and allows for vocal animation, the danger of being misunderstood is ever-present. At the same time, the other extreme of speech in a monotone renders the communication boring and ineffective. When we see a film, we notice different voice inflections used by the hero when making a statement and the subtle or obviously different tone used by the villain. Good intent and evil intent are brought out with tonality. Truth and lies, good and bad, black and white are clearly known by hearing the method of speech used to convey intent. It is relatively easy to understand what the tone means in this context since the characters are pre-set in their roles.


Tonality may be soft, loud, deep, rich or frail or a host of sounds that provide pitch and clarity to the words being used. Tonality denotes emotion about a subject. A person may speak at a fast pace and denote excitement while a slow, deliberate speaker may be struggling to use the correct words to express a feeling. A high pitch may be construed as agitated while a low pitch may be difficult to understand and construed as lack of effort to come clear.


Take the case of a person who is going through an objective setting exercise with the head of the department. If the objective is vague or impossible to achieve, the subordinate is well advised to come clean with the observation. If the point is made in even tones, there is a possibility of the view being heard and accepted. If the tone used is strident and loud, you can rest assured the objective will be forced since it appears like the superior is being blamed while a meek, unsure tone will imply low understanding and confidence. We often see people at organizations who you feel are wanton at their work but carry a great deal of weight because of the aura of success and intellect that they carry. Watch these people for tone. In all likelihood, they are the ones who come forth in strong tones to solve issues brought up by the head of the company. Effective use of tone that manages to appease a situation can make some people seem more capable than others.


In the real world, however, tonality brings up varied responses. Tonality comes with intent on the part of the speaker and may or may not be viewed as intended. Rapid speech may be intended to create the impression of knowledge but be seen as an attempt to cover up insufficient knowledge or to purposely confuse the listener. Slow speech may be viewed as too deliberate or very clear. A deep tone lends weight to the words while a frail voice might miss the heart of the listener. A tone may be seen as stilted which will affect the entire effort of conveying meaning to a listener. The importance of tone lies in its ability to attract a listener towards or distract a listener away from the purpose of the communication.


This is the reason why good communicators use a set of tones that enable them to attract an audience and hold attention through the time span of the communication. Along with tone, there is the aspect of stress on certain words that affect the communication process. Tone provides the communicator the flexibility to stress the acceptance or denial of responsibility; it may betray a feeling of guilt or of being unjustly treated; it may display the latent feelings of the communicator to an event despite an effort to communicate the contrary.


Consider a person being asked about some purchases made in the course of a day. The person wants to highlight that they were home or in school all day but suggests that someone else may have gone and emphasises this by saying:

  • didn’t go to that store today

We come across people absolving themselves or claiming credit with an emphasis on the first person. An accusatory remark will typically get this form of response as will a call for attention.


When highlighting whether an action was done or not, the speaker will focus on the aspect under question.  In response to the question starting with, ‘Didyou …?’ The focus of the question determines the focus of the answer.

The reply will emphasise the term that is emphasised in the question:

  • I didn’t go to that store today.
  • I didn’t go to that store today
  • I didn’t go to that store today

Maybe the person wants to highlight a place of some importance to the conversation; the response will then display a location orientation. Possibly a more suitable alternative was found or another

  • I didn’t go to that store today
  • I didn’t go to that store today

When highlighting the time, the response will tend to be

  • I didn’t go to that store today


However, incorrect emphasis leads to dissonance in the conversation. If the question asked is ‘Did you go to the store today?’ and the answer is ‘Ididn’t go…’ the conversation flow is affected. The questioner is focusing on the timing while the listener has not paid attention to the intent behind the question and has put forth a defensive reply. The person responding may be working on the assumption of personal responsibility whereas this is not the intention of the conversation. The wrong tonality leads to confusion and brings about reduced understanding between the two parties.


Both the speaker and the respondent are communicating from different platforms. It is possible that the speaker is used to being held responsible for the slightest infractions and tends to adopt a defensive posture. This is a potential point of conflict. Tonality lends meaning and allows smooth conversation flow when the emphasis is mutually placed. Tonality provides meaning to communication and conveys importance of purpose. It serves to make communication interesting and worth continuing. Tone may be intentionally used to confuse and direct attention from the objective of a conversation. If used inappropriately it can vitiate the communication effort.


In the above example, when the reply is ego-centric, the reason it can become a point of conflict is that it brings to mind the thought process behind the statement. The intention may be to draw attention to the importance of a certain aspect by highlighting it vocally while a competitor may purposely vitiate the effort by applying inappropriate emphasis and causing confusion in the minds of the listeners. Tonality is highly prone to being misunderstood as it may be wrongly applied to the situation. A person may not intend to sound angry but may be misconstrued as being so by misconstrued tone. Similarly, when we get led by tone, it is possible to feel that the person means to be just and truth and land up believing a person with fraudulent intent.


Tonality is an important aspect of communication since it adds weight to the words but it is prone to being misconstrued. At BreakState, we help you to use it  along with your body language and facial expressions to help you get the desired responses and also help you to draw the right conclusions about people and offers you should place your trust in or avoid.